Duty has replaced desire as the imperative of our time, says the Bishop of Kensingtonby Graham Tomlin / April 17, 2020 / Leave a comment
There was something counter-cultural, as there often is, in the Queen’s speech to the nation about coronavirus. She often speaks about duty and responsibility. This time she spoke about “self-discipline and quiet, good-humoured resolve.” These are, to be honest, not qualities we have tended to prize in recent times.
One of the things we do value in modern life is the right, as the American Declaration of Independence put it, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The idea that each of us should be free to pursue our own ambitions and wishes as long as we do not infringe on the rights of others to do the same is part of the bedrock of liberal democracy.
Ever since Freud, we have been persuaded that our deepest urges, whether we like it or not, are determinative of who we are, that to suppress them is harmful and we need somehow to let them find an outlet. John Stuart Mill taught us that individual self-expression trumps social conformity. The language of human rights has schooled us in insisting on our individual entitlements and getting belligerent when they are threatened. The idea of “doing your duty” has become, not the highly-valued bedrock of society, but a dull, grey moral demand from First World War generals, scoutmasters, moralists and monarchs.
It’s a frequent observation that in the modern world we no longer have a common idea of what a good life is, but are meant to construct our own versions of it. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa points out that while this may be true, we do have almost universal agreement on the preconditions needed. To have a good and happy existence, in whatever shape you want it to be, you need enough money, friends, knowledge, health and rights to achieve it. “Secure the resources you might need for living your dream whatever that might be. That is the overriding rational imperative of modernity.” The result is each of us is in a competition for the resources that enable us to live our own self-chosen version of the good life.
Now all this was a departure from an older view of society found in the classical tradition of Aristotle and Plato, continued to a certain extent in the Christian world, that…